During my 2006 run for the Maryland Senate, I made several new friends in Prince George’s County. After personally knocking on hundreds of doors in communities like Clinton, Accokeek, Upper Marlboro and Fort Washington, standing in front of the local Safeway handing out literature, and attending just about every major church, I learned much about the pride they felt at being the most affluent majority-black county in America, as well as their frustration with social problems that sullied their county’s reputation.
At the end of the campaign, however, I learned the answer to why they weren’t making any progress in solving their problems with failing schools, persistent crime and corrupt government. They kept putting the same people back into office, from the county council to the county executive’s office, from the Prince George’s County legislative delegation in Annapolis to the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill. One of the slogans I loved to use on the campaign trail was the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin and, mistakenly, to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Yet that’s precisely what happened.
Of course I was disappointed to lose because I really wanted to bring a fresh perspective and propose different solutions to these intractable problems for the people’s consideration, and I knew deep in my heart that Senator Mike Miller wasn’t going to do a single solitary thing for them. He’d been in office for 35 years and things hadn’t gotten any better; why should anything change? The complacency of the voters in the county, or perhaps their resignation, was maddening to me and, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
When I first met Sandy Pruitt, she was agitated; I soon learned that was a fairly common state of being for her. She had just moved to Prince George’s County from New Jersey and couldn’t understand how the residents could be so upset about their government yet continue to send back the same scoundrels. In this instance, Donna Edwards, a fresh face and newcomer to the local political scene, had just lost a close primary fight for the U.S. Congress against longtime incumbent Al Wynn, and Sandy was disgusted with the outcome. She was determined to shake up the status quo and party affiliation was irrelevant.
She was aligned with Rushern Baker, a Democrat and former state delegate looking to oust incumbent county executive Jack Johnson, and me, an upstart Republican from Calvert County who had never run for office before. We didn’t win, either, although Rushern gave Jack Johnson a run for his money. I spoke with Rushern often during the campaign and I liked his ideas for the county and the energy and optimism he brought to the race. I knew he’d be back someday.
As for me, I went back home to Huntingtown wondering why God let me do this if I was going to get my butt kicked. While I was licking my wounds, however, Sandy was just getting started. She teamed up with another woman I’d met during the campaign, and Prince George’s County was ill-prepared for what was going to hit them.
A quick story about Sandy’s partner; when I asked people in Prince George’s County who were the “go-to” people I should meet, this woman’s name came up repeatedly, sometimes in awe, sometimes – well, not! One day as I was driving home from work, I decided to give her a call. I’ll never forget what she said after I introduced myself: “Well, it’s about time you called!” And that was my introduction to Zalee Harris.
They may not know it but even though I’ve been down here trying to make ends meet for my family, I’ve been following their exploits in the local news and the swath they’ve cut through Prince George’s County is amazing. They have taken on the school board, the County Council, the NAACP and anyone else who didn’t understand that it was a new day and the time had come for everyone to get off the sidelines and into the game. They are now standing against the campaign to bring the D.C. United professional soccer team to Prince George’s County by building them a new stadium. Sandy, Zalee and the team she’s assembled are insisting that this is a risky and unnecessary expense, especially in these hard economic times. I agree.
Now I know neither Sandy nor Zalee would be finalists for Ms. Congeniality, but being liked is not their objective. They believe too many of their fellow Prince Georgians are going along to get along or have allowed their public servants to buy or intimidate them into silence. These citizen activists are perhaps what the county needs, an electric shock to stir them from their slumber.
I thought of them today as I was reading about the “Tea Party” protests around the country and thinking we need more people at the grass-roots willing to grab a megaphone and tell their elected officials that we’re the masters and they are the servants, not the other way around. I realized that Sandy and Zalee were fulfilling a role as old as the Declaration of Independence:
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Thomas Jefferson, by including those words in the Declaration of Independence, seeks to inspire us to constant vigilance and action when necessary to preserve the people’s rule over government. Sandy and Zalee get what very few do these days; they know they’re the boss and they’ve got the power.